After last Monday’s rather dispiriting tale about Syngefield, County Offaly, here is a much more positive story. Almost exactly six years ago I visited Hazelwood, County Sligo and a few months later wrote about the house and its sad condition (see Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata, February 25th 2013). To recap: Located immediately south of Sligo town on a peninsula that juts out into Lough Gill, Hazelwood once had a garden front that looked down through a series of terraces to the water’s edge: the entrance front faces north across a long plain of pasture towards Ben Bulben. As I wrote at the time, ‘It is easy to see why General Owen Wynne should have chosen this spot on which to build a new residence following the purchase of some 14,500 acres in the area in 1722. Nine years later he employed the architect Richard Castle, then much in demand, to design the house. Hazelwood is typical of the Palladian style fashionable in Ireland at the time of its construction. The ashlar-fronted central block, of three storeys over basement, is joined by arcaded quadrants to two storey wings. Above the north front’s pedimented entrance (inset with a carving of the family’s coat of arms) there is a splendid glazed aedicule with Ionic columns and pilasters and flanked by round-headed niches, while the south front boldly proposes a Venetian door below a Venetian window. The building’s sense of significance is increased by both entrances being accessed by sweeping flights of steps. The interiors must have been similarly superlative, since even after many years of neglect enough of their decoration remains to indicate the original appearance. The main entrance hall has recessed arches on its walls above which hang plasterwork swags, and a deep dentilled cornice. A central doorway leads into the south-facing library which contains similar ornamentation and from here one passes into a succession of other reception rooms. Upstairs is equally splendid: a massive staircase hall leads, via a deep coved archway, into the first floor landing the ceiling of which is open to the galleried second storey, the whole series of spaces once lit by a glazed octagon. Most of the rooms have lost their original chimneypieces, replaced by others of a later fashion since the Wynnes were not averse to making alterations, some less happy than others; a two-storey, three-bay bedroom extension on the south-west corner of the building dating from c.1870 for example fundamentally disrupts Castle’s meticulously planned symmetry. Still, whatever about the Wynne family’s modifications to their property, they were nothing to what would follow once Hazelwood passed into the hands of later owners.’
The last Wynne to live at Hazelwood left in 1923, after which the house stood empty for seven years. It was then bought by a retired tea planter who carried out essential repairs before selling house and estate to two government bodies, the Forestry Department and the Land Commission, the latter assuming responsibility for the building. In 1946, after serving for some time as a military barracks, Hazelwood and the immediate surrounds were offered for sale by the commission with the condition that a buyer must demolish the buildings, remove all materials and level the site. Somehow, days before the auction was due to be held, this stipulation was withdrawn and Hazelwood sold for use as a psychiatric hospital; it was shortly afterwards that the original staircase was taken out of the house. As if this wasn’t bad enough, in 1969 an Italian company called Snia which produced nylon yarn bought Hazelwood and built a factory for some 600 employees. It would have been perfectly feasible for the business to have erected these premises on a site out of view of the old house and screened by trees, thus preserving the Arcadian parkland created by the Wynnes. Indeed one might have thought the relevant planning authorities in Sligo County Council would have insisted this be the case. But instead the factory, surrounded by an expanse of tarmac, went up just a couple of hundred yards to the rear of Hazelwood, covering a space of no less than six acres and thereby destroying the house’s setting. In 1983 the business closed down and four years later the factory was sold to a South Korean company which produced video tapes; this too went out of business. The following year Hazelwood was sold to Foresthaze, a consortium of predominantly local businessmen and in 2007 they applied for permission to build 158 detached houses and 54 apartments in four blocks (in their defence, they also intended to sweep away the factory). This application was refused by the local authority, litigation among members of the consortium ensued, the recession arrived, Foresthaze went into receivership and – when I visited six years ago – the future of Hazelwood looked extremely bleak.
In late 2014 Hazelwood and some 80 acres was acquired by new owners who possess both vision and financial backing to ensure the place will have a viable future. The proposed scheme sees a whiskey distillery (for a new brand called Athrú) installed in part of the former factory, much of the rest of this enormous site to be deployed as a visitors’ centre and storage facility: the building’s location, surrounded by water on three sides of the peninsula, makes it perfect for a distillery. As for the house, this is to be restored to serve a variety of purposes, all intended to engage with people who come to see Hazelwood and enjoy its new facilities. Already essential conservation work has been undertaken: the west wing, inaccessible six years ago, has been re-roofed and its interior cleared. From attic to basement, dry rot in sections of the main house has been tackled and water ingress stopped. The building is now stable and, while it may still not look too lovely, a further programme of restoration work is planned for the coming years. This looks like being a long-term project, and the better for that: jobs undertaken too fast often prove to be faulty. The owners’ aspiration is that when everything is complete (and that includes tackling many outlying buildings around the former estate) Hazelwood will attract some 200,000 visitors annually. Athrú is an Irish word meaning change or transform. Thanks to this ambitious scheme the future of Hazelwood looks changed and its transformation has begun.